I worked with women through their pregnancies and beyond for a long time before fertility as a fitness issue truly entered my consciousness. When a few close friends a few years ago experienced multiple miscarriages and failed IVF experiences, however, I began to think more carefully about it as a factor in fertility. One friend in particular was a fitness professional who wondered out loud whether her fitness life had jeopardized her fertility. Were her workouts too intense? We didn’t know.
I started asking clients how they had been guided by their doctors, and several mentioned that they were told to “exercise but take it easy” or to “listen to their body,” which left many of them confused and scared. What did that mean, since both phrases leave enormous room for interpretation? And is it possible that avoiding exercise altogether out of fear might have taken away an important outlet for stress reduction?
My first response to this kind of fear and confusion is to dive in. I was frustrated that so many women went through fertility treatment with so little guidance, and it became a big part of my mission to find out more information. In the midst of this, I was excited to hear that a fertility specialist in Denver tested our workouts and declared them ideal for supporting the fertility process. I also learned that a few clients with fertility problems who had previously done high-intensity cardio workouts chose to try our method for something more balanced (and got pregnant!).
I felt happy to hear this feedback of course, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. What made this workout – or any workout – helpful or harmful? And was the same thing right for everyone? What were some of the key factors to understand, and how could I be more specific with clients going through the process?
What should I know before I start?
One of the key factors before deciding how to incorporate exercise is to understand what your body needs. Exercise should be approached with a knowledge of current guidelines, and it should be discussed in the context of what a doctor recommends. One of the most significant starting points relates to your BMI (or calculated relationship between your height and weight). An ideal BMI pre-pregnancy is between 20 and 25. Having a BMI greater than 30 can reduce your fertility by 50%, so incorporating a gradual weight loss program of diet and exercise can be extremely helpful. Women with a BMI below 18.5 also experience increased infertility and should avoid exercise that causes an energy deficiency and incorporate a diet that helps them gain weight properly.
Since BMI cannot distinguish between weight caused by fat or muscle mass, body fat percentage can be an important alternate indicator. Research suggests that ovulation can decline if body fat percentage falls below 12% or rises above 30-35%, even if you get your period every month. Again, exercise can be a great way to help regulate these factors, and they should be combined with nutritional support as well.
How should I exercise, and how much?
Although a bit less understood, factors like the type of exercise you do and how much you exercise per week seem to affect fertility as well. For example, research shows that prolonged, intense cardio correlates with adverse perinatal outcomes and greater menstrual irregularities.
From a larger review of research, it appears that exercising between 30 and 60 minutes per day but not more than 4 hours per week produces the best outcomes for ovulatory-factor fertility levels and successful live birth rates. It’s also beneficial for your fertility to have a history of regular exercise, even if you need to tone down the amount and intensity of this exercise during the time you are trying to conceive.
Beyond cardio levels and timing, I’m a huge proponent for finding what makes you feel good. An enormous factor in the fertility journey is stress, and exercise can provide one of the most wonderful ways to regulate your hormones and feel more balanced.
What does this all come down to?
While staying within the guidelines, here are some of my biggest tips for women approaching exercise during their fertility journey:
- Identify the movement you love. What kind of movement feels the best for your body? Happiness and stress reduction should be some of your biggest objectives. Yoga might feel the most organic and relaxing for you, while barre classes or dance might make others happier and more inspired. Pay attention to what pleases you the most. Even consider incorporating your favorite music into your workouts.
- Pay attention to how you feel afterwards. The goal of exercising from a hormonal and stress-reduction perspective is to achieve balance. You should feel energized when you finish exercising, not depleted or exhausted.
- Seek instructors or trainers who are educated and who listen carefully to you. Now is not the time to work out with someone who pushes you way past your limit. Work with someone who is extremely respectful of your needs. You can push yourself a bit, but you should never be encouraged to ignore your body signals. (I’m not a fan of “no pain, no gain!”)
- Find exercise that balances cardio and sculpting. Unless you want or need to avoid cardio altogether, a great solution is to find a balance between moderate cardio and sculpting exercises in your workouts. Yoga, barre, Pilates, dance, and fitness classes that combine these elements may be great choices.
I feel deeply encouraged that so many of our clients who have gone through fertility treatments have had successful pregnancies. However, I truly appreciate the struggle when it doesn’t happen, and I want to add that it pains me when women blame themselves for their lifestyle choices. There are so many factors at play, and there are such vast fitness levels among women who get pregnant. The best we can do is pay attention to research while also being gentle with ourselves and practicing as much balance as possible. Never shy away from asking questions, and seek as much enjoyment as you can in your fitness life, however that works for you!
Mahri Relin is the Owner of Body Conceptions by Mahri, Ltd
Visit her at www.bodyconceptions.com
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